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Hoping for a Happy New Year in Pittsburgh sports

| Monday, Jan. 5, 2004

It's the new year, and I know it's supposed to be a time for optimism and a renewed outlook. Great. I promise to lose 10 pounds by Easter and handle my kids with more patience. I'll even cut down on my cursing.

But for professional sports in Pittsburgh, the future seems almost as glum as the recent past. And that's pretty glum. There doesn't seem to be any hair-of-the-dog antidote to chase away that under .500-proof hangover. As I mentioned a month ago, 2003 marked the first calendar year since 1986 that the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins all finished a season with losing records.

Now those are some teams that could use a few resolutions.

For the Penguins, the best hope of the new year rests on getting some kind of stoppage in games for the fall. Nice outlook. Whether the players strike or the owners lock them out, there appears to be little chance next season will start as scheduled as the salary cap issue threatens to either save the sport from itself or cause it to continue to follow a similar path as Major League Baseball, which has infinitely greater resources and a much larger margin for error unless you are in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh or similar towns.

The Pens appear to be cruising toward the top pick in the draft again but even if they actually get Alexander Ovechkin, can fans really get excited about the rebuilding process when the finished product might eventually be taking the ice in Winnipeg?

The team's chances for playing here in three years aren't good. For the new year brings about political changes at the local level that are even less friendly than before, in terms of getting a new arena. And while not completely dead, the issue of legalized slot machines in Pennsylvania has as much life as the Penguins offense.

For the third straight season, attendance at Mellon Arena is lower than it was the season before. See what happens when you take Stan and Guy off the postgame show• The average of 12,157 per game would be the Penguins' lowest since 1984-85, Mario Lemieux's first season. It's interesting to ponder the fact that the average is still better than any of their first 18 years in the NHL. But all that means is more people will be disappointed when they leave town, allowing another city to benefit from the new collective bargaining agreement.

Then, there are the Pirates, who haven't finished above .500 for what seems like forever. Those of us who were

actually alive to see the Pirates win a World Series should cherish the memory.

Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield put together a pretty nice group of players last winter. Too bad they got off to such a lousy start and had to be dismantled to save money, as well as help the Cubs make the playoffs. But if you are looking for another winter of miracle free agency acquisitions, forget it.

Last year, Kenny Lofton signed a one-year deal for a million dollars to play in Pittsburgh for a year. At 36, he has signed a two-year deal with the Yankees for more than six million dollars. The players smelled collusion last winter, and that blue-light-special lamp has burned out. I'll place a wager with anyone that this year's Pirates won't win as many games as last year's Pirates. The treadmill of frustration continues on Federal Street. And while the Pirates have their new place to play in, unlike the Penguins, they have no hope of a salary cap.

The Steelers have the best chance of giving us something to get excited about in 2004. They have the benefit of playing in the best-managed league in professional sports and will play a schedule befitting a six-win team. And they will draft well too, with a good chance of getting an immediate difference-maker with the eleventh pick overall.

It could be a long time before the Steelers ever get that "one for the thumb." But the way things work in the NFL these days, a return to the playoffs next year is probably better than a 50-50 proposition. Ask New England or Kansas City. Or better yet, Tampa Bay or Oakland.

But pardon me if I don't buy into all that January optimism that flows so freely at this time of year, particularly when it comes to the local pro sports teams.

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